In 2011, a then 27-year-old Dennis Alberto appeared on the front cover of Kairos Catholic Journal, the official publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne at the time. He was commencing his first year as a secondary teacher at Penola Catholic College in Broadmeadows, in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, where he’d completed his own high school years. Twelve years on, Dennis is still a religious education and science teacher at the college; now, though, he is married with two young children, is part of an award-winning musical band, M22, with some of his students, and recently returned from his third World Youth Day (WYD), in Lisbon, Portugal. Dennis reflects on his recent trip and why his passion for fostering a love of God and music among his students has not dimmed.
It’s two months since Dennis returned from his latest WYD experience, where he was the group leader for six male Years 11 and 12 students from a variety of schools based in the western suburbs of Melbourne and further afield. Penola Catholic College also sent 16 students, all young women from Years 11 and 12. So Dennis was grateful that he could enjoy the WYD experience with his own small group, as well as the larger group from Penola.
Reflecting on his recent trip, and its impact on his faith and that of his students, he says there were ‘so many rich moments’. ‘The image that I get in my mind is that of small, beautiful pebbles all coming together into a conglomerate.’
He explains: ‘It wasn’t those big events like catechesis ... that really reached out and spoke to me. It was actually the conversations on the road, going to these events. It was walking 35–40 minutes along the road or being on the Metro with somebody that I’d just met and talking about faith and life.
One of the big things was sharing life stories, and not just among my students, but among all the pilgrims. I think we tend to think that young people don't have a life story because they’re young. But they do. And a lot of them are carrying so much. It was encountering God in these young people, in their brokenness as well.
‘I heard some stories that really moved my heart, and sometimes you can’t even say anything. You just listen and that in itself is important, to learn how to listen to somebody else’s story. So it became a thing on our pilgrimage that whenever you met someone, the line became, “What’s your story?”’
He found that being asked this question in return, by his students and other young pilgrims he encountered, really touched his heart. He says, ‘I was moved by being asked that question because you tend to take the position of teacher, or of leader, but I too have a personal story. So together we experienced these beautiful moments of sharing stories, of sharing our wounds and hardships, and we came to realise that we’re all the same. We’re broken people and we need God. That’s what we would arrive to, and it was really beautiful.’
Dennis also took great pleasure in ‘stepping back’ and ‘witnessing the joy’ on his students’ faces as they experienced the universal and communal Catholic Church during WYD. He says this provided a contrast to previous WYDs, where he’d been among the excitement and action, swapping badges and flags with other pilgrims, racing to the front of the barricades to get a glimpse of the pope zooming past in the motorcade.
‘I remember being at my first WYD trying to exchange badges and flags, the thrill of it, and meeting all these beautiful people, but this time, I showed the boys how to do it and then I stood back and watched. They were so into it. There was this beautiful life in them, sharing and talking to other pilgrims. I received so much joy in seeing their joy. Their faces just lit up.’
Dennis also speaks of how music has played an important role in his vocation as a teacher, youth leader and man of faith. Both during his recent WYD experience and in his role at Penola, music has been a way of connecting with young people, and with God, and a way to express his love of God and hope in him.
'Music is the thing that gives me a lot of confidence,’ he says. ‘It’s my connection to God, and it’s the place where I find peace. It has the power to help make sense of the world and where I’m at.’
And yet, there was a time in Dennis’ life when he stopped playing music. ‘At one stage I’d said to myself, “Well, now I’m a dad, I can’t be doing this childish dream.”’ And so, putting his love of music aside, he wrapped up all his musical and production equipment and stored it in his garage.
Fortunately, in 2018, Dennis met two students in his Year 7 class with whom he could write music, inspiring him to tap into his creativity again. In one of his religious education classes, they’d read an article, and rather than discussing it in the conventional way, they wrote a rap song about it. ‘We ended up recording that song, which was pretty cool, and it started snowballing from there.’
From that time, and over the past five years, Dennis has continued writing songs and is grateful for the opportunity, saying, ‘Music has picked up again in my life’. Last year, he started the M22 project, with a number of his students (then in Year 11, and now in Year 12, including the two students he’d started writing music with years earlier).
‘Coming out of lockdown, 2022 was one of my darkest years,’ says Dennis. ‘Lockdown really left me broken in terms of my mental health. And I share that because in the context of the M22 project, that was the light in that dark chapter.
‘When the project started, I met the band and I reconnected with the two girls, Alannah and Kelly, back from Year 7. We started this project of writing and making music but doing it with a different kind of spin. We wanted to bring hope to people. And I just felt that it was God’s way of helping me make sense of where I was at, on a personal level, but also to reconnect fully with music. So for the past two years, we’ve been going for it, writing songs and releasing music.’
The name ‘M22’ was inspired by the words music and ministry, and by the year it started, 2022. But also, when Dennis googled ‘M22’, a NASA website came up that explained that ‘M22 is a globular cluster of stars in the night sky.’ Dennis says, ‘They’re actually the brightest stars in the night sky, and so, when I read that, I had this electricity in my body and the little voice inside me saying, “That’s it! Because that’s what we want to be. We want to be stars in the night sky. We want to bring hope in our music.”’ Following the auditions, successful band members were each presented with a torch, symbolising their role in being a light to others.
The M22 project, which includes Penola students Kelly Godfrey, Alannah Gouvas and Siala Maelasi, and former student Jordan Gioskos, released its first single, ‘Footsteps’, last year in September. It was inspired by the life of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop and speaks of the power of forgiveness and surrender.
It didn’t take long for the debut single to enter the Today’s Christian Music (TCM) Top 30 chart, where it stayed for more than 20 weeks. It was played on several major radio stations and gained over 35,000 plays on YouTube. The song was so well received that M22 was awarded Australian Artist of the Year, as part of the 2023 Christian Media and Arts Australia People’s Choice Music Awards.
‘That was a beautiful victory for us,’ says Dennis. ‘Although I wrote the song, I feel like the band members brought the song to life, with their voices and in the way that they approached it. It was such a blessing for the debut single to go so far. God was definitely behind it, as was the school.’ M22 has recently released its second song, ‘All I Need’, which also draws on the inspiration of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.
As the school year draws to a close and Dennis reflects on the great experiences he’s recently had, he hopes that through his leadership role at WYD, he’s been like ‘the sower’ in the parable of Matthew 13. ‘I know that those kids are beautiful ground,’ he says. ‘They’re good soil, and so my hope for them is that they find community and a sense of belonging, where they can really continue exploring and growing in their faith. I hope that the seed that was thrown onto them at World Youth Day germinates.
‘I also hope that they are able to use this WYD experience like an axis in their life, a pivoting point in their lives where they got to experience the universal Church, and where they now know they belong.’
And as for his music ministry, Dennis is heartened by his renewed sense of purpose and connection to God through his music. He says, ‘I’ve received emails from teachers who are using the song in their prayers; a school sent a video of their students singing “Footsteps”, and I hear our own students humming it or singing the song as they walk along the corridors. It’s a beautiful thing, to see something that started out in your mind, created in your living room, which is now all of a sudden in somebody else’s mind and heart.’
Reflecting on this, he says, ‘When we create, when we facilitate others to create, when we put our heart and soul into something, there is a moment where we need to just step back and just watch and trust. And so many times, especially with World Youth Day, with the M22 project, and in my life these last few years, I’ve found that when you allow yourself to do that, you begin to see that something greater is at work, and that something greater is at hand—God is present and active in our lives. I find hope in knowing that I’m doing my best, and then I know that God will do the rest.’
M22’s ‘Footsteps’ and ‘All I Need’ are available on a number of streaming platforms.
Melbourne Catholic08 August 2023
Fiona Basile31 August 2022